January 1, 2017 | Luke 2: 21-40 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
One of my favourite events at the church this advent season was the Soul-Full Supper we held the Sunday before Christmas. Despite the heavy snowfall we had an excellent turnout that night with close to 40 people of all ages sharing a meal and then coming into the sanctuary for spiritual practices. In the busyness of the season I was grateful to have a few quiet moments for my own personal reflection at the various stations that night, but what really stirred my soul was looking out at the gathered community and seeing teenagers teaching toddlers how to sew a star made out of felt, fathers helping daughters write messages of hope on our poetry wall and mothers and sons lighting candles and praying before images of Mother Mary and baby Jesus.
Where else? I asked myself. Where else do you see one generation side by side with the next sharing together what can’t be learned from a book or perfected on a sports field, what can only be born in the heart? Where else?”
Throughout our Advent and Christmas season this year we’ve been reflecting on the Good News and Great Joy found in the stories of Jesus birth. How those stories take the common experiences of life like pregnancy and birth and what name to give a child, experiences we can all relate to on some level, and infuse them with just enough unusual circumstance to make us sit up and take notice.
When we do take notice, what we can’t help but see is that these are all stories about God doing a new thing, ushering in a new world order where love conquers hate, where the poor are fed and the lowly gain status, where empires made up of violent and dishonest rulers can be brought to their knees and God is using ordinary people like pregnant teenagers, seniors past their prime and working class shepherds to make it all happen. Instead of what we might expect or want, God coming into the world with force and might to thrash the evildoers or crush the Empire, the story tells us God comes to us in the form of a tiny baby born to peasant parents, to elicit love, to nurture tenderness, to disarm us and draw us in and to form us into a new kind of community.
Throughout the story of Jesus birth, at least as it is told in Luke’s Gospel there is a thread of one generation sharing with the next the faith that has been nurtured in their own lives and the hope that one generation has for the future of the next.
Aging Zechariah and Elizabeth see in their child John and in young Mary and Joseph the possibility of ancient promises coming to fruition. And because of the hope they see in them, they are willing to let go of long-established traditions and social norms to let this new thing come to life. Part of what the story tells us is that some things need to be released in order to make way for the new.
This morning we hear about Simeon, nearing the end of his life and Anna an elderly widow who are among the first to recognize Mary and Joseph as bearers of the light for the nations and parents of longed for dreams come true. Again, we have this pattern of the old giving way to the new.
What always strikes me about Anna and Simeon, these two elderly characters who take the baby Jesus and hold him in their arms and sing his praise, is that by today’s standards they are the last people you would expect to be embracing this young couple who have given birth to a child practically out of wedlock, breaking numerous social and religious conventions along the way. Instead of holding on to the way things have always been or putting their faith in the establishment and fearing the radically new, instead of lamenting the loss of their productive years, these two see the possibility inherent in the next generation to carry the message of God’s love in new ways. They know their job is both to pass on their wisdom born of a lifetime of experience but also to bless and empower the younger set and to trust that God is at work in them.
A few years ago I attended a conference on the future of the church at which the main speaker Leonard Sweet encouraged us to make use of technology in our worship services. During the question and answer period an older woman came to the microphone and with genuine passion for the church clearly evident in her speech, asked how we could get our youth off their phones and into our churches.
Although I understood her love of the church and her desire to pass on that love to others, I remember thinking at the time how presumptuous it was of her to think that what youth are doing when they are on their phones is less important than what we do when we gather on Sunday mornings and how arrogant it was of her to think that if the youth of today would only come to us all their problems and ours would be solved.
For me, the beauty of Anna and Simeon is that not only have they oriented themselves towards a long-term commitment to a deeply spiritual life, to faithful living and to actively waiting for peace and justice to come in the world while engaged in the institutional rites and rituals of the temple tradition,( remember Anna not only worshipped every week, she lived at the temple), they also have the capacity to trust in and embrace the radically new thing they see coming to life in a young couple and their baby. So instead of welcoming Mary and Joseph into the temple with all kinds of “this is how we do it here” with do’s and don’ts and holier than thous, Anna and Simeon come alongside these two youth and their child and affirm the presence of the spirit already at work in and through them. They respect them and they honour them.
There’s a kind of timeless practice humanity seems to have of looking down on the next generation, criticizing them and lamenting the way they don’t do things like previous generations did them. How many times have you found yourself saying “in my time we did it this way.” How often do we question the values of younger people or wallow in our inability to decifer their language and our incapacity to understand their new fangled ways? We’re intolerant of their music, their technology and the clothes they wear. It’s as if this just comes naturally with aging.
What if instead we were so self-possessed of what really matters in our lives, the eternal things of life like love and compassion, the work of bringing about peace with justice and inclusion for all, the wisdom we have gained from living long in the world, that we are able to pass those things on, while keeping an eye out for the places where the Christ is being born in fresh and new ways in the lives of the next generation.
The invitation of Christmas is not to gather in our churches because here is where we keep tradition alive, or even because it’s here is where we encounter the Christ child. The invitation of Christmas is to gather in churches to be reminded of an ancient promise that God is with us, that the sacred is made incarnate in us, in our flesh and bones, that the child we are welcoming is somehow wrapped up in the way we welcome we extend to one another and the way we welcome our own truest selves. The invitation of Christmas is to remember that Christ is always coming to life not just in the hallowed halls of our temples and churches but in all places and in all people and sometimes most potently outside of our churches. That’s what we’re invited and encouraged to pass on to one another in this season, the truth that the story is for us and about us regardless of how each generation chooses to live out that story or even if they know this is the story out of which they are living. It is somehow to give one another the experience of this story in the way we live our lives.
That is why I was so moved at the Soul-Full Supper event because when I sat back and looked at the people gathered round, what I saw was generations of people being the church together, living the Christ-life together, sharing a sacred experience of respect and love, living an old story of hope and possibility in a completely new way, a way that suits this time and this place.
This week as the year was drawing to a close I heard lots of commentary about how happy people are to be leaving 2016 behind. The focus was mostly on all the great artists that died right up until the last few days with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds topping thing off. But there are others who were ready to leave behind the politics of 2016, some the devastation of events like the Fort MacMurray Fires or the relentless destruction of Aleppo. There’s certainly lots of things about 2016 I would like to leave behind, but there are also things I want to carry forward and pass along into this new year. Because for as much as there was bad news in 2016 there was and always is Good News to share, wisdom born of the ages.
So as we move a little closer to the end of this Christmastide and turn to begin another year I wonder
What are the old ways of doing things that no longer serve you?
What it is you want to nurture and tend in yourself and pass on to others in this New Year?
What is the new thing God is doing in and through you?
How and where do you see God at work in the world?